Premium tourism company, Southern Discoveries, is celebrating four successful years of sponsoring the Tawaki Project in Milford Sound. As one of the world’s rarest penguins, the tawaki, has reappeared in Milford Sound for its annual breeding season from July to November.

The project is focused on unearthing new findings to better understand the species, their breeding behaviours and breeding conditions. The tawaki is one of three penguin species that live and breed on the New Zealand mainland however, they are the least studied species due to breeding occuring in less accessible regions.

In 2015, it was estimated that the entire Fiordland region had only nine breeding pairs. However, when the project team searched Harrison Cove, part of Milford Sound where Southern Discoveries operates kayaking tours and New Zealand’s only floating underwater observatory, they discovered seventeen active nests. It was evident that this was an active breeding spot that would be an excellent area for study.

Tawaki with baby chick in Milford Sound

Manager of the Southern Discoveries Milford Sound operation, Wolfgang Hainzl, says his team strongly believed that Harrison Cove had a higher population of tawaki than estimated.

“Our Southern Discoveries team organised a recce trip to Harrison Cove for Dr Thomas Mattern, Scientific Director at the NZ Penguin Initiative and leader of the Tawaki Project, to assess the area. Within an hour of searching the area, we found the nests.”

“Research began at Harrison Cove and it has since concluded that the local population of tawaki in Milford Sound is estimated to be around 180 breeding pairs, twenty times more than the original estimate, which is fantastic news.”

Mattern says, “The area was previously believed to be unsuitable to study the penguins however, it has now become a key location to observe the tawaki.”

“The Project has unearthed key scientific facts about the tawaki that would not have been discovered without the initiative and support of Southern Discoveries that resulted in the work at Harrison Cove.”

Other key findings showed that the breeding conditions are highly beneficial for the penguins, with unusually high birth survival rates compared to numerous locations around New Zealand. The ability to work at Harrison Cove has also hugely boosted public awareness through social media engagement and workers being able to directly engage with site visitors.

“We are determined to improve conservation efforts of New Zealand’s enigmatic tawaki penguin through extensive studying of their ecology,” says Mattern.

The project will be entering a new phase of research with a ten-year plan to decipher how fiord ecosystems benefit species.

The best way of seeing the tawaki in Milford Sound is on a Southern Discoveries kayaking trip or small boat cruise where a safe viewing distance is maintained and guides can educate guests about the tawaki’s behaviour. People should never touch or approach the penguins and should move away from them if they start walking closer. Photos are allowed; however, camera flashes should be turned off when taking photos.

As the oldest and most well established company in Milford Sound, Southern Discoveries is committed to preserving the area and its beauty. As part of this commitment, Southern Discoveries is also the principal sponsor of a major conservation project in Milford Sound – the Sinbad Sanctuary Project.